Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, BacklashWhen co-author and publisher Julian Davies sent me Backlash to review, he described it as “our latest and perhaps most ambitious book so far – non-fiction”. Hmm, I thought, that’s quite something from the publisher of some very interesting and, it seems to me, ambitious books. But now, having read Backlash, I understand what he meant. For a start, Backlash comes straight from the heart of its writers, but more than this, it is ambitious in that its goals and messages reach beyond the specific issue of live exports and animal welfare, as important as those are.

It’s unlikely, if you’re Australian, that you didn’t see or hear about the 2011 Four Corners television episode on the live export of animals to Indonesia, A Bloody Business*. While the actual audience on the night was, Jones and Davies say, comparatively small, the impact – in the short-term in particular – was huge. This book tells the wider story – how the program came about and what happened afterwards. In doing so, it explores the ramifications of the trade, weighs economic expediency against ethical considerations, exposes the democratic processes by which decisions are made, and asks us to think about what it all says about us as a people. As the subtitle says, it’s about “conflict of values”. Live export might be the subject of this particular story but, for Jones and Davies, it exemplifies something bigger, something to do with the sort of society we wish to be and how we might get there. For this reason, as for any, Backlash is a valuable read.

What I didn’t know, or didn’t remember, when I started reading the book is that co-author and zoologist Bidda Jones, head of science and policy at RSPCA Australia, along with Lyn White, animal activist and now campaign director for Animals Australia, were the people who took the issue to Four Corners. It was Jones’ research and White’s video footage which convinced Four Corners to do the story. After the broadcast, politician Barnaby Joyce asked Jones and White why they hadn’t taken the story to him and his Opposition colleagues. The reason was simple, they had tried approaching politicians but had failed to garner any interest. So, to the media it was.

There is no fancy writing here. The book uses plain, direct language as befits its aims. There is little use of flashy rhetorical devices to sway opinion. The authors focus instead on fact and logic to present their case. The book is carefully structured. It starts with an introduction which sets out the book’s aims and explains that although both authors contributed to the book it has been written in Bidda’s first person voice. Chapter 2 briefly recounts their experience of watching the Four Corners program. The book then moves back in time and, over several chapters, chronicles how the program came about: the research (which included Lyn White’s filming trip to Indonesia), the lobbying, and the strategic planning. We then return, at Chapter 16, to the screening of the program and a description of its content. The rest of the book discusses the show’s aftermath. They detail the main cases for and against live export of animals, the initial widespread strong reaction which resulted in the government imposing a short-term ban on live export to Indonesia, and the backlash against this decision which resulted in live export being restored. Since then, they argue (though others argue differently), no real progress has been achieved in improving the welfare of animals. It’s a distressing and depressing story about the failure of our duty of care to animals.

The book is not, as they admit in the Introduction, “an unbiased examination of the different sides of the live export debate”, that is, they decisively argue the animal welfare case, just as Bill McKibben in Oil and honey starts from the basis that he is a climate change activist. However, they also argue that they don’t take “an inflexible ideological position”. They recognise that ours is a “pluralistic society” with many different stakeholders. I understand this to mean that they are vegetarians** who would prefer no animals be killed for food, but they recognise that there are many people who do wish to eat meat. Their position, then, is not to stop animal farming altogether, but to ensure that the welfare of the animals involved is given the priority it should in a civilised society.

Achieving better animal welfare, though, is easier said than done. In chapter after chapter, they demonstrate how “money speaks and is heard”, how bureaucratic processes are manipulated, how changes in political personnel subvert plans, how public policy is too often formed under the influence of power-plays and egos rather than logic and reason. And so, despite a huge public outcry and clear public concern, in the end economic arguments outweighed ethical considerations. The few recommendations made to improve animal welfare conditions were either watered down (such as mandatory stunning pre-slaughter made “a recommendation” not “mandatory”), were not given a proper regulatory framework, and/or got lost in the bureaucracy.

By now, you are probably wondering if the book is all about nay-saying, but it’s not. Jones and Davies propose a range of options, starting with improving the welfare of animals involved in live export. This means improving the selection of animals to be exported, improving the transport conditions under which they are exported, and then improving their treatment and slaughter at the other end. Better, though, they argue, would be to stop live export altogether and focus on the meat trade. This is what New Zealand decided to do in 2007 when it ceased live export out of concern for animal welfare and for its reputation as a country which cared about animal welfare. The problem is that ceasing live export requires longterm planning (including the rebuilding of abattoirs in northern Australia) but contemporary Australian politics is epitomised by “short-termism” underpinned by “a built-in avoidance of complex issues”. I don’t think many of us would argue with their statement that:

Altering the land management practices of pastoralists over millions of hectares requires a long-term outlook and courageous decision-making – rare qualities in today’s political climate.

And so, issues like animal welfare concerns, environmental degradation and insecure export markets are ignored in favour of short-term economic gains.

At the beginning of the book, Jones and Davies state that

a central premise of this book is that a well-governed society develops ways to reconcile economics and welfare so that both suffer as little as possible.

They stay true to this throughout demonstrating that it is possible to balance economic considerations with ethical concerns. (Just look at New Zealand for a start!) Australians, Jones and Davies believe, have shown that they (we) do not condone “entrenched cruelty” to animals, but so far people power has not won out. This story has a way to go yet …


* You can watch the program online (in Australia at least) but warning, it it VERY unpleasant viewing.
** Please see Bidda’s comment below clarifying that they are not vegetarians, as I thought I’d read.

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies
Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2016
ISBN: 9780994516503

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)